In denying imperialism as the cause of wars, works by recent mainstream academic historians effectively feed into the justifications of wars past and present

Christopher Clarke, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Penguin 2012), 697pp.

When Michael Gove launched his denunciation of historians who question the justice and sense of the First World War, his ulterior motive was plain to see. Despite the deeply silly characterisation of eminent historian Richard Evans as ‘an undergraduate cynic’ rather than ‘a sober academic’, the purpose was not remotely scholarly. That the exercise was part of an ongoing attempt to stir up fearful, jingoistic support for present-day military actions is barely concealed in the opening reference to ‘the challenges we face today – great power rivalry, migrant populations on the move, rapid social upheaval’ – being the same as those faced in 1914. The appeal to academic objectivity is disingenuous not only for that reason, but because it functions as a standard trope ruling out of court challenges to the establishment view of history, rhetorically casting them as emotionally unbalanced.

Gove and other figures, such as Max Hastings, might be dismissed as representing a vulgarization of academic discourse on the subject, with opponents such as Richard Evans in fact representing a balanced consensus. Yet the picture is not quite as simple as that. The jingoistic positions taken by Gove or Hastings can only have traction because of certain weaknesses and denials in the mainstream academic picture. Every historian has a somewhat different slant on these debates, but two recent books, by Christopher Clarke and Margaret MacMillan, represent two versions of a highly sober orthodoxy, in a controversy that could never possibly attain the spurious ideal of academic objectivity.

Apportioning the blame

It will be no surprise to anyone that the debate over the origins of World War I was highly political right from the start. The Versailles Treaty famously enshrined German war guilt as one of its clauses, and the debate springs from that point. That victors’ historiography had to be abandoned fairly soon, and by 1951 a Franco-German Historians Commission had concluded that World War I was the responsibility of all the great powers combined. The new consensus had proceeded from the not unreasonable feeling in France and Germany that after the catastrophe of two world wars, the two countries needed to be reconciled, and any desire for further revenge had to be dampened. Yet this of course was a political project in itself. The historiography did not so much explain why the twentieth century has been so prone to catastrophic great power conflict, as simply agree that World War I was a blunder and that the finger-pointing should stop.

The danger of this position was that the official consensus served to absolve governments in general of responsibility for being willing, even enthusiastic, about the prospects of war settling the scores in 1914. Instead it could be characterised as just a frightful accident. It is really in this context that the famous German historian Fritz Fischer should be seen. His work held the German state firmly responsible for the war due to its aggressive designs for the growth of Germany’s stature as a world power. This was an accusation made against the historian’s own establishment, and a demand that a true reckoning be made with the legacy of the wars.

The political context of the historian’s thesis bears directly upon its truth as history, since it is perfectly possible that this is the case that needed to be made in Germany in 1961, but in another context, Britain in 2014, apparently similar arguments become tendentious apologia for warmongering. Using Fritz Fischer to argue that Britain was therefore on the side of right and justice in fighting a war against a belligerent Germany is simply a nonsequitur. Germany may have been culpably belligerent, but that does not mean that Britain was not a criminally warmongering power also. Critical history can become jingoism divorced from its proper context and purpose.

The polite thing to do, from an academic point of view, is to share the blame around with a detached, if saddened, even-handedness. This is, to a considerable extent, the mood of both Christopher Clark’s and Margaret MacMillan’s attempts to account thoroughly for the outbreak of the war. By their very titles, the sense that responsibility will be found to lie with many powers is clear. However, something more is implied in both. There is a passive sense that it was not willed by any one power, and that no one was acting maliciously; Europe’s leaders sleepwalked into war, Clark’s title announces. Even more passively, for MacMillan, the war itself ended peace; there is the personification of an extra-human force being hinted at here. The arguments belie the implications of their headlines in most of the small print, but they are apposite titles nonetheless for the overall impression given by both books.

A new villain of the twentieth century

There is then something of an enduring consensus that the cataclysm of the First World War was everyone’s, and thus perhaps not quite anyone’s, fault. Nonetheless, within those parameters Clark advances a much more unusual explanation for the war. The focus of the first hundred pages, and more, of The Sleepwalkers is on the state of Serbia, whose resistance to Austrian demands was the occasion of the declaration of war, the triggering of alliances and the cascade into world war.

In a standard pro-British account, Serbia might be presented as heroically resisting the aggression of a far superior power in Austria-Hungary. Clark turns this on its head by presenting Serbia as a violent, unpredictable and ultra-nationalist state, guilty of atrocious war crimes in territories only recently (1912-13) ripped from the Ottoman Empire, and of being a sponsor of terrorism within the multi-national Austro-Hungarian state. Serbia was a rogue state, to the extent that Clark considers that it ‘looked for a time as if Serbia was on the point of launching a suicidal assault on its neighbour’ (p.35). In contrast, Austria is presented as reasonably within its rights to make the demands that it did, following the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.

There are numerous pointed contemporary echoes in the narrative, not least in the note that Gavrilo Princip admired suicide assassins. Indeed Clark underlines the parallel he is drawing with the comment that the young Bosnian Serb conspirators were ‘made of that sombre, youthful stuff, rich in ideals but poor in experience, that modern terrorist movements feed upon’ (Clark, p.50). MacMillan too makes the connection between the Black Hand and Al-Qaeda (MacMillan, pp.513-14). However, just as certain arguments seek to depoliticise explanations for the anger of young Muslims against the West in the present day, so these parallels suppress any understanding that Bosnian inhabitants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire might have had legitimate grievances.

Austria had only just in 1908 formally annexed the province, creating an international furore. Yet Clark offers an apologia for the Empire that dismisses the notion that there could be real, material reasons to hate the Austrian state (pp.74-5), meaning that any actions against it must have been fuelled by a purely ideological, nationalist mania. Clark goes on to attempt to show that the assassination plot was significantly connected to the Serbian government, but really does no more than establish a tenuous moral complicity rather than any direct responsibility (Clark, p.96; contrast with MacMillan, pp.514-15).

Sometimes the echoes of the wars of the 1990s are unmistakable. ‘The mismatch between national visions and ethnic realities made it likely that the realisation of Serbian objectives would be a violent process’ (Clark, p.26). Yet judgments such as this not only smack of hindsight, but assume that the catastrophic effects of the breakup of Yugoslavia were inevitable even by 1900. The many nationalisms of central Europe at this time might well be considered dangerous, but they need to be reckoned against the highly oppressive Austro-Hungarian Empire, which cannot be considered some sort of stable, pluralist entity that deserved to survive. Showing up the nastiness of many currents of Serbian nationalism at this time is not an argument for the virtue of Austria, or the justice of its intervention into Serbia.

That there is a real subtext in Clark’s concentration on Serbia is clear; it is not just that he is providing a thorough account of every detail behind the outbreak of the war in the nearly seven hundred pages of text and notes. Margaret MacMillan’s equally lengthy text overlaps very little with the explorations Clark provides, underlining the point that the commentary is not accidental, but bears upon the argument. It might be considered refreshing that a British historian is willing to look at the origins of the war from the view of Britain’s erstwhile opponents, but the perspective remains one firmly within that of imperial powers.

Humanitarian wars

If the subject of the book is how Europe went to war in 1914, then all the material devoted to Serbia must be considered relevant to the argument. There is an unsparingly grisly account of the coup in 1903 that eliminated the pro-Austrian Obrenović dynasty and replaced it with the pro-Russian Karadjordjević family. In one sense this certainly could be seen as a cause of the First World War, with Clark later noting that the Austrian chief of General Staff advocated the annexation of Serbia as early as 1907 (p.104). After all, the coup of 1903 was an act that transformed a former client state into an independent factor, with an ally in Russia to bolster its ability to act autonomously.

Yet the point of enlarging on Serbian politics, and its shocking violence, in 1903 is to exonerate Austria, by showing Serbia as a dangerous entity and a real threat to the huge empire. This is underlined by the account of Serbia’s sudden doubling in size in 1912-13 in the wake of the two Balkan wars against the Ottomans. Certainly, the Serbian armies and government were responsible for atrocities in the newly acquired territories (Clark, pp.112-13). However, the problem with all the incidents that Clark dwells on here is that they are in fact irrelevant to the larger argument about the origin of World War I. Austria was not intervening in Serbia because of crimes against humanity that were being played out in the Balkans; it was invading in order to protect its imperial interests.

That Clark considers recent so-called ‘humanitarian’ wars relevant to his argument is made absolutely clear when he justifies the notoriously severe Austrian demands on Serbia in 1914 with Nato’s demands on modern Serbia over Kosovo in the Rambouillet Agreement:

‘But it would certainly be misleading to think of the Austrian note as an anomalous regression into a barbaric and bygone era before the rise of sovereign states. The Austrian note was a great deal milder, for example, than the ultimatum presented by NATO to Serbia-Yugoslavia in the form of the Rambouillet Agreement’ (Clark, p.456).

Clark admits that the 1999 demands would have been ‘unacceptable even to the most moderate Serbian’ but the comparison is there nonetheless to justify, particularly as the ‘demands of the Austrian note pale by comparison’ (Clark, p.457). The point, however, should not be that the Austria was regressing to some model of medieval behaviour, but that its ultimatum represented the all-to-modern tendency of imperialist powers to intervene in the affairs of smaller states, on speciously moral grounds. Contrary to Clark’s assertion, the Austrian demands were seen at the time, and since, as representing an undue attack on the sovereignty of a small, weak state.

That Austrian demands on Serbia were extreme and unreasonable has not usually been controversial, and MacMillan’s narrative confirms the usual position:

‘The terms were already exceedingly difficult for an independent nation to accept and they were going to become more stringent still as Austria-Hungary’s officials worked on them as well as on a dossier that was meant to prove that Serbia had been plotting against Austria-Hungary for years … The dossier in the end proved to be full of errors and was not finished in time to be handed over to the powers along with a copy of the ultimatum’ (MacMillan, p.532, and see p.536).

Clark’s account seems to be remarkably one-sided in this respect, and in the end rather than justifying Austria by comparison with Nato, seems to reinforce doubts as to the justice of the latter’s actions against Serbia-Yugoslavia in 1999.

Part of the case against the Serbian state seems to be its very weakness; Clark refers to the words of an Austrian attaché that ‘even if a “sensible” government were at the helm … it would be in no position to prevent the “all-powerful radical chauvinists” from launching “an adventure”’, (p.82). This all comes very close to the discredited rhetoric of the ‘Global War on Terror’ on the dangerous rogue regime that harbours terrorists, and is somehow able to threaten the integrity of a much more powerful state.

Surely, however, it would be much more convincing to see Serbia being destabilised precisely by the internal conflicts and disorders of its larger neighbour. Clark should be given some credit as a British historian for adopting a perspective at odds with the British imperial narrative, but it is unfortunate that in doing so he finds an alternative imperial narrative to endorse. Particularly as it is one which, by parallels, is tilted at the justification of the current imperialist project, bounded by the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention and the ‘Global War on Terror’, and supported by the EU, Nato, the US and the UK. The original imperialist perspective turns out to be not so much transcended after all.

Russia’s responsibility for the war

Clark’s argument moves on from the case against Serbia, to consider the inevitably connected case of Russian responsibility for the war. Clearly there is a case to answer here, just as there is for every great power in 1914, but it is interesting how Clark’s argument intersects with another that has been made recently. Sean McMeekin’s argument, in The Russian Origins of the First World War (Harvard 2011), that Russia was singularly to blame for the war effectively is directed at providing some extra ballast to the argument raised by Niall Ferguson that Britain was mistaken in joining the war, as it was joining a conflict for the wrong reasons. The motive of the reasoning here is far away from Clark’s, as it is underpinned by nostalgia for British imperial dominance in the world, yet it is remarkable how little they differ in the outcome.

McMeekin downplays the importance of the Serbian alliance to Russia in order to argue that Russia forced the outbreak of World War I due to other aggressive ambitions. Much more plausibly, Clark concentrates on the close relationship between Serbia and Russia, particularly through Russia’s ambassador, to argue that Russia encouraged the belligerent Serbia to resist where it should not have. Clark’s argument carries more conviction than McMeekin’s, but there is a problem that essentially opposite arguments can lead to broadly the same conclusion, that Russia is, to a greater or lesser extent, to blame for the outbreak of the war. Something is missing from the analysis if interpretations can appear to cancel each other in this manner.

It is characteristic of narratives on this subject that historians seem to seek to give more and more detail on particular events and individuals as if that will reveal the real circumstances behind, and thus the causes of, the war. Clark is able to eviscerate the conduct of the Russian foreign minister Izvolsky (e.g. Clark, pp.85-6), and the influence of the ‘extreme views’ of the Russian ambassador to Serbia, Hartwig (Clark, pp.259-60, 430-2), nailing the precise Russian responsibility for the outbreak of the war in particular figures. The conclusion can then rise to the generality that the alliance system may have led to war, but it ‘still needed to be ignited from outside itself, by means of the trigger that the Russians and the French had installed on the Austro-Serbian frontier’ (Clark, p.364).

There is a problem with an analysis which focuses so strictly on individuals, their personalities, and their reactions to particular events. It fails to ask whether a different Russian representative in Serbia would have acted in a qualitatively different way, for example, or, more broadly, how far individual decisions were shaped by larger forces. For example, it might be supposed that any Russian government would, one way or another, back up its one clear ally in the Balkans against its competitor, Austria. The particular attitude of someone like Hartwig becomes less crucial in that context. The focus on detail obscures larger fundamental issues. Accidents of personality are no guide to causation, because the same result, war, might well have been the effect of many different circumstances, if imperial competition was the underlying issue.

Margaret MacMillan, The War that Ended Peace: How Europe Abandoned Peace for the First World War (Profile Books 2013), 699pp.

War through misadventure and misperception

Clark is less concerned than McMeekin to shift blame absolutely onto Russia. The intent is rather to complicate the general picture, showing war as an unfortunate consequence of a host of actions, many unwise, but not necessarily culpably war-mongering. Where Austria is held to account, it is for the narrow-minded ineptitude of its decision-making rather than for any deliberate policy (Clark, pp.426-9). The balance of blame given to any one of the great powers in the end matters little when the emphasis is on misadventure and misperception as the cause of war, as it is in MacMillan’s otherwise very different account of the relative contributions each state to the outbreak of war.

Clark’s perspective may be slanted towards exonerating Germany of any special guilt for the war, but curiously this does not involve much examination of Britain’s responsibility. Here MacMillan does offer some useful points, noting how Britain could be seen as the aggressive actor in the particular case of the recent Boer War, or simply perfidious when offering Germany Portugal’s African colonies to settle Germany’s ambitions (MacMillan, pp.23, 45, 507). The more general point that Britain, as the long-term dominant power, found that the existing state of the world served its interests, is given some exposure. Thus MacMillan quotes the German writer, August Niemann, stating that ‘almost all wars have, for centuries past, been waged in the interests of England, and almost all have been incited by England’ (MacMillan, p.253).

Militarism is not restricted, as so often, to being the particular fault of Germany, with extensions to Austria and Russia. So she notes also how dangerous it was that the military in all countries was ‘increasingly accepting war as inevitable, even desirable’ (MacMillan, p.478). Yet, Britain’s imperial role in the world is not in the end factored into an explanation of how events moved towards war. Neither does MacMillan explain why militarism should have been becoming more marked across Europe, nor why it should influence all governments, whatever their complexion. These lacuna arise because the discussion separates an acceptance that all the powers share in responsibility, from any sense that the existing imperialist world system was the real cause lying behind the ‘war that ended peace’.

Imperialism and the war

This is perhaps puzzling since MacMillan makes a point of noting that Social-Darwinist ideas were by no means the preserve of German elites, as some would have it, but were a general phenomenon across Europe (MacMillan, pp.246-7). Yet, these are just points along the way, and do not lead to a general analysis. Indeed: ‘At the time militarism was usually blamed by liberals and the left on capitalism, which, so it was argued, was engaged in an all-out competition for control of the world’ (MacMillan, p.256). The tone indicates that these views should not be taken too seriously, but in fact, recognition of the role played by imperialism as a system in all these events, would do much to help the many individual trees in these books come into focus as an actual forest.

MacMillan is stern on the old leftist views however: ‘The idea that Europe’s tensions were the product of economic rivalry persisted long after the Great War but the evidence is simply not there to support it’ (MacMillan, p.256). What follows is a denunciation of a (straw) Marxist analysis that can be found in any textbook, but the argument only stands up due to hidden conceptual moves. Firstly, imperialism is not seen as a political-economic complex, but is defined simply as the acquisition of land in the form of colonies. This allows MacMillan to dismiss it as a cause of the war, as plenty of colonial disputes can be characterised as ultimately trivial or even ‘absurd’ (MacMillan, pp.41-5). Yet the quarrel with Germany, including the naval arms race, was clearly about Germany’s ability to equal or overtake Britain on a world scale (MacMillan, pp.80-3). Not to see the issue of colonies in the wider terms of access to markets and resources across the world, is to narrow the terms of analysis in order to deliberately avoid natural connections.

Capitalism in turn is treated as a separate issue and defined in narrowly economic terms: ‘Trade and investment between many of the belligerents were increasing in the years before 1914. Britain and Germany indeed were each other’s largest trading partner … Bankers and businessmen involved in exports and imports generally looked at the prospect of war with dismay; it would bring high taxes, disrupt trade, and cause them severe losses, perhaps even bankruptcy’ (pp.256-7).

There are several problems with this sort of argument. Firstly taking some individual capitalists’ opinions about a particular foreign policy does nothing to prove that wider, more strategic national-capitalist interests would not have encouraged quite different views. The state is the committee for managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie as a class, and capitalism is not merely the aggregate of the individual views of particular businessmen.

Secondly, the argument that trade links weigh against war is obtusely simplistic. It was, nonetheless, at the time a popular notion, advanced by the writer Norman Angell, that capitalism would promote world peace because complex trade relations would make war irrational (for MacMillan on Angell see pp.272-3). However, capitalism seen as a social totality, and not merely as trade, is not rational in that optimistic sense. It is a contradictory system which, as the twentieth century has shown, can thrive on disruption and destruction. There are in fact many points in both Clark and MacMillan’s accounts where acknowledgments of strategic economic issues fleetingly appear. Clark notes, for example, Serbian and other Balkan states’ dependence on international loans, or Austria’s alarm at the prospect of a Serbo-Bulgarian customs union (Clark, pp.29-30, pp.80-1).

MacMillan herself notes that Germany’s ‘trade was soaring around the world and increasingly cutting into Britain’s share but that was not enough. It did not have the colonies, along with the concomitant naval bases, coaling stations, and telegraph junctions which were held to be the mark of a global power. Moreover, when it tried to take territory overseas, in Africa or the South Pacific, Britain invariably appeared to raise objections’ (MacMillan, p.55).

This entirely undermines the later argument that economic issues could not have caused the war, simply because of the volume of trade between Britain and Germany. So while it is true that business per se did not directly cause the war, capitalism in the wider sense did, as long as our thinking is not limited by the artificial separations between economics and politics upon which liberal minded historians tend to insist.

For both Clark and MacMillan, the First World War was an unnecessary, and dreadful, mistake on the part of Europe’s elite. MacMillan concludes that in ‘1914, Europe’s leaders failed either by deliberately opting for war or by not finding the strength to opposite it’ (MacMillan, p.592). Both historians see a host of opportunities for Europe to avoid war in the many different decisions of leading individuals, without fully taking into account that these men had a wider context which pushed them towards war. Yet while the overall tone of both books portrays the war as largely the inadvertent result of some more and some less sensible moves on the part of many actors, there is another factor which coloured the European elites’ veritable enthusiasm for war. This was the growing unrest of the working class in all the states involved.

War and the class struggle

Another German historian, Hans-Ulrich Wehler, developed an argument that the German elite welcomed war as a kind of ‘flight forward’ away from internal social conflict, designed to re-assert the ruling class’ control over society. MacMillan partially acknowledges this argument at points, as when quoting the Kaiser’s reaction on the outbreak of war: ‘In the battle now lying ahead of us, I see no more parties in my Volk. Among us there are only Germans …’ (MacMillan, p.577). However, it was not just the Germans who were afraid of social discontent, or of the growing influence of socialist parties, and were delighted by the unity brought about by war. The same could be said for France and Russia certainly (MacMillan, p.565, p.568). In Britain, MacMillan notes that many thought ‘that the Great War saved Britain from a civil war’ over Ireland (MacMillan, p.588). Of course, that war was only postponed.

The fractious state of Europe’s people is a factor that should be given more prominence in assessments of the atmosphere within which Europe’s rulers took the decisions that led to war. It is then also clear from where the decisive power to stop the war could have come. It was never going to come from any wise decisions of statesmen, but only from the anti-war and labour movements.[i] That the European labour movement failed to live up to the real possibility of mobilising the working class against the war was the great tragedy of the whole story.

The leading men of state were never likely to take the kind of decisions that would have stopped war, because they were all committed to defending the interests of their own empires. British leaders may have shed decorous tears, as when Sir Edward Grey lamented that the ‘lamps are going out all over Europe’, but, as MacMillan notes, ‘he had done much to bring Britain to intervention in the war’ (MacMillan, p.588). Neither Clark nor MacMillan by any means belong to the jingoistic school of World War I history, but both tend to give Britain a much easier ride than is deserved. Clark shifts blame away from Germany and Austria, and onto Russia and France, when it is not focused on a weak ‘rogue nation’ in the Balkans. MacMillan accepts more of the standard case against Germany, leaving Britain only secondarily at fault.

Yet, only a few years before, Britain had appeared as the villain in both France and Germany in its ruthless conduct during the Boer War, (Clark, p.134), where concentration camps were first invented. It is of course notable that British imperial villainy and viciousness should only become controversial when it affected white settlers, but the point illustrates that the British Empire was and had been a permanent source of violence, injustice and oppression throughout the world, as it would continue to be. It was certainly seen as the major block to German expansion, which aspired to imitate Britain’s empire.

In the end, the horrendous destruction and death caused by the First World War marked a permanent shift in popular opinion about war. The enthusiasm with which that war was greeted by significant sections of the population throughout Europe would never again be repeated. Scepticism about war has remained part of a common sense that ruling elites have found hard to shift. Nonetheless, the crude, jingoistic account of the origins of the First World War can still be made, and this is in no small part to do with an academic consensus that allows it space to breathe.

Ultimately the arguments of a Clark or a MacMillan do not question the framework on which a Gove or a Hastings depends for their nationalistic positions, and also enable the contrarian and loudly pro-Imperial views of those such as Niall Ferguson. A refusal to understand the role of imperialism in creating the pressures that led to war means that the debate devolves into an inconclusive parrying of details of this event or another and the fine slicing of meaningless portions of responsibility. This leaves the claim that ‘western democracies’ were justified in going to war with Germany looking more plausible than it should. The consequence of the perspective is clearest in Christopher Clark, where the justifications for recent wars colour the interpretation of the past, and a non-partisan treatment of old enemies paradoxically reinforces the legitimacy of imperialist conduct in general.

The twentieth century was to become a century of imperialist war, and the experience of these conflicts has led to a remarkable well of feeling throughout the world against war in general. This is all the more notable because official opinion, even in its moderate guise, tends firmly against the anti-imperialist, anti-war perspective. If, however, we are to stop the twenty-first century from following the pattern of its predecessor, the wisdom of that popular understanding needs to be defended and repeated. Moreover, the lesson that the enemy is the one at home must be underlined at every opportunity.


[i] For a brilliant recent account of this see Adam Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Protest and Patriotism in the First World War (Pan Books 2012).

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).

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